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Tony O'Kane | Sep, 05 2014 | 4 Comments

When the final Falcon rolls down the line in October 2016, thus will end Ford's involvement in building cars in Australia.

But though the foundries in Geelong and the assembly line in Broadmeadows will fall silent, one fact that tends to get overlooked is that the company will continue to be a development and design hub for the American auto giant, post-2016.

In fact, local boss Bob Graziano says Ford will be the largest automotive employer in Australia once it, Toyota and Holden cease local production - a goal he reiterated at the company's recent Innovation For Millions Event In Broadmeadows.

Ford Australia is the mature product development centre in Ford's Asia Pacific region, and one of only three such centres in Ford's global network - the others being Cologne in Germany and Ford's home office in Dearborn, Michigan.

And though the company's Asia-Pacific operations are headquartered in Shanghai and there are two other product development sites in Chennai, India, and Nanjing, China; Broadmeadows is the only site in the region capable of designing and engineering a complete vehicle from the ground up.

And that means Ford's local design and engineering facilities, knowledge and talent isn't going anywhere. At least not in the forseeable future.

So high-tech facilities like the Ford immersive Virtual Environment (FiVE) lab, a virtual-reality room that allows engineers and designers to don 3D goggles and walk around - and through - a computer-generated car, will stay here.

It's one of only two such labs in Ford's global network, with the other located at the automaker's headquarters in Dearborn. It's certainly a specialised facility.

A recent upgrade saw the Melbourne-based FiVE lab almost double in size, enabling users to walk completely around a car as large as the upcoming Everest SUV.

By moving their head into the virtual 3D model, engineers can see how each component fits into the car and fix problems before expensive real-world prototypes have been built.

And the video feed from the FiVE lab goggles can be fed across the building to an auditorium with a 4K projection screen, where large numbers of employees (who wouldn't ordinarily be able to fit into the much smaller FiVE lab) can examine each virtual prototype by proxy.

But besides being an aid for designing cars from the ground-up, the FiVE lab also proved handy when developing the right-hook version of the upcoming Mustang.

Car floorplans are rarely symmetrical, so being able to sit in a 3D modelled RHD Mustang and examine every interior panel gap ensures our car will have the same level of interior fit and finish as those sold in the USA.

But the FiVE Lab's capabilities extend even further than that. Not only can a static, painted and textured model be rendered in 3D, but so can 3D models of crash tests and even dynamic models depicting the flow of air around the cabin.

Ever wanted to experience a front-end collision from the point of view of the engine? The FiVe lab's engineers can make it happen.

Ford Australia's design and engineering resources extend well beyond the virtual though, with electrical integration departments where whole vehicle wiring looms and their components are tested, through to 3D-printing and more traditional clay model design facilities.

There's also, of course, Ford's proving ground in the You Yangs. That facility will survive the manufacturing shutdown, and will continue to be one of Ford's four high-featured testing grounds for future global - and local - products.

It's not just a collection of bumpy roads in the bush, either.

Inside the You Yangs facility you'll find a thermal wind tunnel that can simulate a hot desert wind to an arctic gale, an environmental chamber that can replicate weather at any latitude, dynamometers and more.

What does all this equate to? Well, it means that entire cars will continue to be designed, engineered, simulated, prototyped and tested right here by a highly-skilled Australian workforce.

Right now there are 1100 Ford Australia employees involved in design, engineering and validation, and that number is expected to grow.

Those cars may not be built here, but Ford Australia's message is this: Australia is still an important part of Ford, and that will continue into the forseeable future.

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